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Sunday, 17 March 2019

What Do You Mean, Too Old? Everyone Can And Should Contribute!

I am slightly reluctant to return to the subject of ageism as it may be thought that I have a hidden agenda (which I have).

Sadly old age and infirmity are reducing my physical mobility but happily I still have my marbles, or at least some of them.

I had a wonderful colleague in the USA, Pat Hyndman, who died a couple of years ago at the age of 95 , and was still chairing two Vistage CEO groups.

Pat's approach to retirement was that he intended to go on until "they had to carry him out on the flip chart" and if only metaphorically that is what he achieved.

However in conversation with several of my Vistage CEO members of late I have been looking at the subject on a less personal and emotive basis.

There is no doubt that here in the UK we are in a period of fuller employment.  During the past period of recession, austerity measures led to a reduction in skills training and we are reaping the consequences now.

My friends in the recruitment industry tell me that certain sectors have become candidate led simply because of the shortage of good, trained people looking to move.

Indeed in one case the member told me that they had offered positions to three potential candidates all of whom had gone elsewhere.

The eye watering salaries  being offered are way above the current market range even though the member's company has an enviable reputation as an exceptional  employer.

The whole market is going through  a cyclical change right now and I suspect that it will get even  harder rather than easier to find, recruit and retain great people.

What, then, can be done about this problem?

There is a whole range of variables that impact on the situation that I would suggest is one of the most serious facing business leaders at this moment whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations.

For example, the change in legislation stopping companies imposing mandatory retirement to employees has led to the occasional blockage in available career paths.

Medical advances are also leading to longer life (about which I am not complaining) that implies a bank of knowledge and skills is growing and still in employment.

The current shortage of candidates means that there is a further issue stemming from the dramatic changes in business technology.

The younger people take these changes for granted and embrace them automatically while those at the more elderly end of the workforce find absorption of these changes more difficult.

There is no doubt that many people who are passing or have already passed the notional retirement age can expect two or three decades more and I have always said that much of that skill bank is neither realised or exploited.

There is a natural reluctance on the part of employers to bring older people into the workforce but here and there it may be at least a part solution to the problem.

While I am a great believer in the more mature citizens keeping working and contributing (should they so desire) I would accept that there will be many whose skills can easily be supplied by someone younger or by advances in technology.

Manual workers for example will find continued work becomes inhibited by the natural ageing process with the consequent reduction in strength and mobility.

However with the growth in the apprenticeship schemes why not employ these older people to pass on their skills to the young generation?  For example, some of my Vistage CEO group members have exploited the situation by forming training academies to develop their own people rather than recruiting.

For the more mature who have come through a professional career path, there is no reason why they should not keep themselves available to help out on a part-time or interim basis.

Alternatively a portfolio of activities can bring intellectual rigour with a measure of freedom of the diary.

Finally remember that as we age, it's the knees that go first closely followed by parallel parking.

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Sunday, 10 March 2019

Is The Business Becoming Boring? Then Dare to be Different!

At a Vistage Open Day a couple of years ago, US speaker Jaynie Smith examined the way that businesses promote themselves to prospects and existing customers and she came to the conclusion that most of it was just blah, blah, blah. 

A depressing thought but when we look carefully at what we inaccurately consider to be our USP (Unique Selling Proposition) we rapidly come to the conclusion that not only does it not sell but it certainly isn't unique. 

Unique means precisely that; there are no shades of uniqueness, things cannot be fairly or very unique. 

Consequently very few businesses can offer something that is truly unique; at best it may be unusual or rare. 

Jaynie calls it the Competitive Advantage; what is it that you offer that genuinely is different and makes you stand out from the competition?
Think of those businesses that are (or were before the copyists arrived) truly different like Google through brilliant software design, Apple through constant product innovation and Amazon which has revolutionised retailing. 

Ask yourself the question; what do we offer in terms of our product, our quality, our service, our people that makes us stand out from the crowd and encourages us to seek a premium from the markets we serve?

In my youth, my (pre-girls) passion was cricket and particularly Lancashire League cricket. As a very ordinary off spin bowler, my role model was an extraordinary leg spinner called Tom.

Tom managed to deliver sumptuous leg breaks and gigantic googlies while bowling like a demented octopus, arms and legs flailing in all directions. To say that the batsmen had difficulty in picking his googly is an understatement. In fact they seemed to have just as much difficulty in deciding which of his wildly gyrating extremities would be delivering the ball.

The consequence was, of course, that he gained a reputation of invincibility in the League and he eventually went on to bigger and better things in his career. Sadly it was cut short by physical problems but the memory remains.

So what is the point of this tale? The point is that even though he had talent, enthusiasm, drive and commitment in abundance, his greatest attribute was that he was different.

I don't mean different just for the sake of it or to make an impression. I mean rather be different so as to impact on people's thinking, to help them to change in a positive sense and to stand out from that crowd which seems to be growing ever bigger.

Our education system in the UK from GCSE through A-levels, to University and then on to Post Graduate studies can lead to a standardisation of the eventual outcomes with an emphasis on conventionality.

Will and Kenneth Hopper in their wonderful book, The Puritan Gift, quote the late Professor Russell L Ackhoff, formerly of the Wharton Business School in the USA, as saying that there are three principal achievements of a business school education which are:

"to equip students with a vocabulary that enables them to talk about subjects that they don't understand, to give students principles that would demonstrate their ability to withstand any amount of disconfirming evidence, and finally, the give students a ticket of admission to a job where they could learn something about management".

It is not a surprise to me that seemingly a significant proportion of Managing Directors and CEO members of Vistage International groups, at least in the UK, did not go to University but found their success through a burning desire to succeed, through humility, a voracious appetite for learning and above all, through being different.

It is the difference that ensures that competitive advantage in the market place, that encourages the market to deal and to stave off the attacks of the insidious competition.

Never be in the position of worrying about competitors; make sure that your success makes them worry about you. 

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Sunday, 3 March 2019

Entrepreneurship - By Nature or By Nurture?

Entrepreneurship?  Is it by Nature or by Nurture?

There is no question in my mind that entrepreneurs who create and sustain successful businesses combine great ideas with their own blend of passion, commitment, personal values and strengths. 

Indeed they often exhibit a huge level of emotional attachment to the business that is almost like having surrogate children.  In fact if that commitment and dedication is not there then I can't see how it would work. 

I had a member of my Vistage CEO peer group who had started his working life in his parents' baby wear shop. A customer asked him if he could supply a one-piece rain cover for the pushchair as the current three piece version was difficult to use. 

He could have said "There isn't one on the market" but instead he went off, designed one, manufactured it and told the customer. She was delighted and told all her friends. 

The result was that a new business was born and was rightly successful. 

Success came about through a combination of innate curiosity, a strong belief in his/her own abilities and a desire to create something new for a market that is well known. There was a magic blend of positive personal characteristics and an eminently marketable idea. 

Unsurprisingly then I tend to look for this combination of talents in people whom I am mentoring. It is never just about making money.  Most of them look upon material rewards as the effect or symptom of the cause and it is that which delivers the greater satisfaction.

Indeed the acquisition of material possessions can often be viewed, perhaps subconsciously, as a reward for effort that can only be given personally.  

They feel that the very act of creation, whether overt or hidden, is exciting, is enjoyable and delivers a strong sense of purpose and achievement. 

They also exhibit a dogged persistence, a sort of bloody minded intention to succeed whatever obstacles are in the way together with a strong conviction that what they are doing is right. 

It is said that Thomas Edison tried 1,000 experiments before the final successful incandescent light bulb emerged.  When asked how he could live with all that perceived constant failure he said that they weren't failures, they were 1,000 lessons that had to be learnt. 

The question to ask then is whether entrepreneurs are born or made? Is it a matter of nature or nurture?

In my somewhat chequered past I ran a Government sponsored training programme for unemployed executives called "Start and Manage Your Own Business" and it really opened my eyes. 

It has been suggested that 80% of start-up businesses fail in the first year through underfunding, a lack of marketing expertise, lack of financial expertise and overall lack of good commercial common sense. 

In fact all of those skills can be taught and developed which removes a multiplicity of excuses for failure.  The factors for success are much more in the way of feelings and emotion. 

Of course that depends eventually on both the skills and the emotional attachment being present in any entrepreneurial business. If the leader doesn't have a lot, indeed any, of the skills then the clever thing to do is to bring them in and make sure that the team is well aware of where the business is going; that they know what success looks like and how they are expected to contribute. 

An entrepreneur who can build a team of all the talents with the requisite skills and overlay a layer of commitment, dedication and above all, passion will have constructed a sustainable enterprise. 

The key is to accept that nobody knows everything so the ball must be passed to the right person in the right job and that takes humility on the part of the leader.   Not easy to achieve but dramatic in subsequent results. 

The collaborative role is better than the single genius approach. 

Remember that no-one is as smart as all of us. 

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